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Mon Feb 22, 2021, 08:46 AM

Opinion: Study finds cognitive bias in how medical examiners evaluate child deaths

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/02/20/study-finds-cognitive-bias-how-medical-examiners-evaluate-child-deaths/

A new study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences suggests the role medical examiners play in the criminal justice system is far more subjective than commonly thought. It also suggests their analysis might be tainted by racial bias.
Medical examiners (also known as forensic pathologists) make two determinations after conducting an autopsy: the cause of death and the manner. The cause of death, though sometimes ambiguous, is usually a fairly objective finding based on tests and observations well-grounded in medicine. But determining the manner of death can be much more subjective. In most jurisdictions, there are five possibilities for manner of death: undetermined, natural causes, suicide, accident or homicide. The evidentiary gap separating an accidental death from a homicide can be significant (the body was riddled with bullets) or razor-thin (whether the victim drowned or was drowned). Yet itís enormously consequential, because a homicide designation usually means someone will be charged with a serious crime.

The new study was led by Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at University College London who specializes in cognitive perception, judgment and decision-making. (His research team also included four forensic pathologists.) There are two parts to the study. In the first, the researchers looked at 10 years of Nevada death certificates for children younger than 6 and found that medical examiners were about twice as likely to rule a Black childís death to be a homicide as a White child. The researchers then asked 133 board-certified medical examiners to read a vignette about a 3-year-old who was taken to an emergency room with a skull fracture, brain hemorrhaging and other injuries, and later died. All the participants received the same fact pattern, with one important exception: About half were told that the child was Black and had been left in the care of the motherís boyfriend. The others were told the child was White and had been left in the care of a grandmother.

Of the 133 medical examiners who participated in the study, 78 said they could not determine a manner of death from the information available. Among the 55 who could, 23 concluded the childís death was an accident, and 32 determined it was a homicide.

This is already a problem. Reliability is one of the key criteria the Supreme Court has said judges should consider in deciding whether to allow expert testimony. The same facts applied to different people should produce the same outcome. That clearly wasnít the case in this study.


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Response to WhiskeyGrinder (Original post)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 08:55 AM

1. Awful, with dreadful consequences. Sounds like they

wanted to establish with this study that bias existed, rather than identify and quantify specific biases, by making one vignette black child in the care of the mother's boyfriend and the other white child in the care of a grandmother. Regardless of color, "boyfriends" are far more likely to be involved in the death of children of "girlfriends" than the children's grandmothers. (And since there are far more white boyfriends than black, they're inevitably involved in far more deaths.)

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Response to Hortensis (Reply #1)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 01:50 PM

2. I agree with you.

They, then, should have done the same experiment, reversing race...would they blamed the black grandmother?

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Response to angstlessk (Reply #2)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 02:30 PM

6. MEs aren't supposed to lay "blame" at all and that's the issue -- not racial bias, but whether they

consciously or not use information they're given to come to a conclusion that is supposed to be much more scientific.

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Response to WhiskeyGrinder (Reply #6)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 03:05 PM

9. Of course. But this is about what a study shows. Initial studies

often set up what they hope will be situations more strongly reflective of the expected results than might be typical in order to demonstrate that a relationship does exist, perhaps then leading to further, more involved study reflective of typical populations.

I remember reading about one in Italy that attempted to see if people will be biased against other people based SOLELY on the SIZE of the group they belong to, all the imaginary people in the two groups otherwise being exactly the same. Definite bias against those in the smaller group was demonstrated, but they had weighted the study to demonstrate the anticipated bias by only studying strong conservatives they expected would be more inclined to it than the average. More accurate analysis of people in general was for later studies, if funding was obtained, etc.

The results were fascinating, btw. Almost everyone demonstrated some bias against people in the smaller group, but to widely varying degrees. A few actually developed serious antipathy toward imaginary people in the smaller group.

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Response to Hortensis (Reply #1)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 02:26 PM

4. Right. They're not testing whether MEs are racially biased; they're testing whether MEs use any

information at all in their verdicts, which are supposed to be based on science.

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Response to WhiskeyGrinder (Original post)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 02:16 PM

3. Am I missing something?

"Of the 133 medical examiners who participated in the study, 78 said they could not determine a manner of death from the information available. Among the 55 who could, 23 concluded the childís death was an accident, and 32 determined it was a homicide.

This is already a problem. Reliability is one of the key criteria the Supreme Court has said judges should consider in deciding whether to allow expert testimony. The same facts applied to different people should produce the same outcome. That clearly wasnít the case in this study."


Do they ever tell how the results were divided along white child/black child lines? The WAPO is behind a pay wall.

tia
las

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Response to LAS14 (Reply #3)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 02:28 PM

5. They did find that in the study, the deaths of Black children were more likely to be labeled

homicides, and those of white children were more likely to be labeled accidents. But they weren't testing specifically for racial bias; the fact that there's a definite cognitive bias at all is the issue.

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Response to WhiskeyGrinder (Reply #5)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 02:40 PM

7. IF they only used blacks and boyfriends vs

vs whites and grandmas, perhaps the bias was on boyfriends babysitting?

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Response to angstlessk (Reply #7)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 02:42 PM

8. Could be. The point is, MEs are using information they shouldn't to come to their conclusions.

There shouldn't be a bias *at all.*

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